The effects of IL-7 on the generation of cytolytic human peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) were investigated. Induction of T-cell pore-forming protein (PFP) mRNA and cytotoxic potential by IL-7 was both slow and minor compared with that observed in IL-2-cultured T cells. IL-7 and suboptimal doses of IL-2 (10 U/ml) were found to costimulate PFP mRNA expression and cytotoxic potential in T cells. Clearly, however, both IL-7 and IL-2/IL-7 induced the PFP gene expression and cytotoxic potential of CD8+ T cells and not CD4+ T cells. In addition, neither monoclonal antibodies (mAb) to the p55 or p75 IL-2-receptor subunits had any effect upon IL-7 induction of CD8+ T-cell cytotoxicity, indicating that IL-7 induction of cytotoxic CD8+ T cells was IL-2 independent. IL-7 induction of CD3- large granular lymphocyte (LGL) and PB gamma delta T-cell cytotoxicity was also delayed and reduced compared with that effected by IL-2. IL-7 (10 or 1000 U/ml, 72 hr) enhanced the NK and LAK cytotoxic of LGL and PB gamma delta T cells. By contrast IL-7 or IL-2 augmented the redirected cytotoxic potential of PB gamma delta T cells, but not that of LGL, and neither lymphokine had any effect on constitutive PFP mRNA expression in either lymphocyte subset. In addition, IL-7 induction of LGL IFN-gamma production was weak and delayed compared with that effected by IL-2 and neither IL-2 nor IL-7 stimulated IFN-gamma production in PB gamma delta T cells. Therefore, overall the effects of IL-2 and IL-7 on various cytotoxic human PBL were qualitatively similar, but quantitatively and kinetically different.